The Review: Pop quiz, hot shot. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman were the leads in the original Kung Fu Panda, but there was also a Furious Five made up of other animals. Can you name the actors that portrayed Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane? No real prizes for Angelina Jolie or Seth Rogen, but give yourself a point if you got Jackie Chan as Monkey or Lucy Liu and frankly, if you managed to identify David Cross as Crane, then you don’t get out much, do you? But this is the way of the Dreamworks animation. The likes of Shrek, Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens have relied on famous voice casts where the characters are a thin reflection of the voice actors playing them, to the point you could almost believe it was the actors themselves in an animal suit were the characters not so convincingly portrayed by the CGI. So when you pay for Jack Black, he might look black and white and be even tubbier than in real life, but it’s basically still the same Jack Black you’re getting.
Which might make you wonder how it would be possible to spin a sequel out of the material already woven by the original? Kung Fu Panda tread some familiar Dreamworks ground, the consistent moral in their material being that you should be true to yourself, and one that Po the Dragon Warrior had learned quite well by the end of the first film. But there were some obvious seeds planted in the original, not least the fact that Po the panda’s dad is, well, a goose. When Po starts having flashbacks mid-fight, there’s obviously a need for closure, but little does he realise how wrapped up that will be with new enemy Lord Shen (Gary Oldman)?
If there’s one thing that’s been largely absent from most of the Dreamworks animations, then it’s the depth of emotion that their contemporaries such as Pixar manage to work in so effortlessly, and while the Shrek movies have made a few attempts, they’re generally pale imitations. Not any more, though, as Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds admirably in expanding upon the original story but in the process adds further layers of depth and pathos to the story. Somehow, it also manages to drop in even more famous voices – as well as the major players from the original mentioned above, the likes of Dennis Haysbert, Michelle Yeoh and even Jean Claude Van-Damme all get their moment in the spotlight. Jack Black does well, but once again the weak link is Angelina Jolie; more effective here than in the original, she’s still the most anonymous of the voice cast, but there’s enough good work here that you don’t feel let down and Oldman is especially enjoyable as the petulant peacock bent on world domination.
So a good meaty story, with plenty of feeling, but the other think that made the original Kung Fu panda such a standout was just that – the kung fu. Thankfully, this sequel lives up to the standard set by the original and features scene after scene of top quality family-friendly fighting – enough to get the kids imitating on the playground but not enough to get them taking each other’s heads off. The quality of the animation and the direction is also easily the equal, if not an improvement, on the original, and the flashback sequences are especially well handled and distinct. All in all, this second instalment is easily a match for the first and maintains a high standard, so late scenes potentially setting up a second sequel excite rather than disappointing. Let’s hope the standard maintained by these first two Pandas can be maintained by those that follow.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a fantastic sense of scale and both the set-pieces and the fights don’t disappoint. This will delight kids of all ages, even those into their mid-to-late thirties, and there’s enough for any age range to ensure they don’t get too fidgety.
Why I didn’t see it in 3D: A scheduling conflict meant that the only way I could squeeze three films into an afternoon was to forego the 3D option for this film and stick to 2D instead. Based on what I know of 3D and its inability to carry darkly lit films with lots of cutting and fast paced action sequences, you have my sympathy if you end up at the 3D version.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: If you were making a list of people who could make unsympathetic and unlovable characters still appealing, then Paul Giamatti would surely be near the top of that list. His standout turn in Sideways from a few years back may have helped in that cause; his neurotic and uptight Miles still managed to be captivating. So it’s maybe no surprise that, when looking to put on screen Mordecai Richler’s novel about a man and his many marriages, that the makers turned to Giamatti. Barney Panofsky is a man who distrusts and despises the world around him, and generally goes out of his way to tell friends and colleagues what he thinks of them, in no uncertain terms; yet he’s managed to snare (or be snared by) three wives along the way. Having Paul Giamatti in the role makes that prospect instantly more believable.
The three wives in question, who we meet over the course of the film’s extended narrative, are Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. Barney is drawn to each one for different reasons, and in that the narrative almost becomes a compare and contrast process, as we see the different reasons that people make a life commitment and their effect on Barney each time. Lefevre has the slightest of the three roles in the production, and Pike the meatiest, but each has a sizeable impact on Barney’s character and help to paint the picture of how he becomes the man he is at the end. Pike’s is undoubtedly the strongest performance of the three, although the movie has to work hard in each case to make the set-ups believable, mainly thanks to Barney’s personality.
Apart from Barney and his wives, the supporting cast is packed with familiar names and faces, Dustin Hoffman being the most prominent. When the narrative isn’t entirely focussed on the three wives’ tales, there’s a preoccupation with family and the legacy that others have had on Barney and in turn his effect on them. The film is at least enjoyable for all of these parts of its running time, but generally the scenes involving a wife are the most compelling. There’s a real depth of feeling and there are strong themes of behaviour, love and loyalty, each running through each tale and inviting the viewer to compare and contrast, but taken on their own these strands are as good a romantic comedy drama as you’ll have seen in many a year.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that, at regular intervals, one of the smaller subplots actually ends up overshadowing the whole film. The structure of the book plays on the unreliable narrator idea, but the film has a more conventionally flashback structure and so a potential murder mystery is used to cause Barney to review his life from the point of view his older self. But the whole whodunnit is so completely at odds both tonally and structurally with everything else and so unbelievable in its execution that it unbalances everything, and the fact that the resolution feels like it’s been casually lifted from the opening of a Paul Thomas Anderson film means the whole strand is distracting from beginning to end. A shame, as the rest of the film is so likeable and Giamatti deserves to be centre stage in a hit, but sadly this will only be remembered as a partial success.
Why see it at the cinema: For me, Rosamund Pike almost naked on a bed justified the price of admission, but I’m sadly turning into my own version of a dirty old man with the passing of time. Enough of that. For regular audiences, Giamatti is great, and if you can overlook the murder subplot there’s enough laughs and tears here to thoroughly enjoy the collective experience.
The Score: 7/10